Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reading Things on Things

I just saw an ad for Barnes and Noble's Nook. It's an e-reader, named a bucolic epithet to put it in direct competition with the Kindle. If you were to use both at once, you would find your favorite reading perch is, in fact, a Thomas Kinkade painting, so homey would be your e-usage.

I knew this thing existed and haven't given it too much thought. I own books I haven't read, others I'll reread and others still I just like having around, and they all have a feature the new Nook proudly totes: they are all touch-controlled.

I was surprised to find the Nook didn't already have this function, as I supposed it was the obvious thing to do. The Nintendo DS had a touch screen years before the Nook, Kindle or Hearth (or whatever the next one will be called) existed. The technology was there, but a device created to ape the effect of holding a book didn't have a book's number one feature, one an old .45 record told me to do in my youth. That is, *ding dong* turn the page.

There are plenty of things to like about e-readers, enough that I would accept one as a gift, should the opportunity arise. As Neil Gaiman has pointed out, they make any book large type with the push of a button, they are often more portable than bound volumes (Perdido Street Station is a monster of a book) and you don't have to go to the pesky library to get another one. The last one may seem like my trademarked tongue in cheek humor, but you haven't met some of the Chicago librarians. Seriously, they're not even eccentric about being stuffy; they're just kind of mean.

My favorite thing about the e-reader, though, is what it will do to books themselves. Every e-book feels the same, its texture and tone that of your Warm Blanket or Tree Shade, but a book like The Yiddish Policeman's Union has a feel all its own, with distressed pages and fold out covers (even in paperback!). It's sort of like the introduction of the PSP's competition made the DS get off its duff. Similarly, the printers' monopoly on printing is at its end.

But for all the good points of an e-reader, they're one step-backedness seems to work against the people who make them. You're a large bookseller, with stores across the country, stores which you are staffing with people who you get to pay below what their English degrees deserve, but still you pay them. You're paying utilities, property taxes, kick backs to the mafia, all those niggling fees to exist, yet you decide to sound your own analog death knell by entering the digital sphere. With the advent of your Patch of Sunlight (wait, no, that's where cats relax, not where people read. Sorry.), you have effectively ended your support of books made out of trees.

I understand the desire to diversify, but I also think giving people a reason to not come into your store is questionable business. Seems to me, I come out with the Umbrella-Protected Beach Blanket or the Grassy Knoll, I start selling my stores like mad and let the artsy-fartsy people careen to their doom on their Gutenberg raft.

It's not that I don't think both platforms will survive, but Barnes and Noble, Borders and that half-aisle at Wal-Mart can't really spread themselves too thin and still compete with libraries and independent booksellers, especially when they're working against themselves. Seeing as how e-readers offer less of the book experience, maybe it's just time for the big boys to pack up and let people have their readin' the way they want it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to flip through pages just because I can.

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